IOWA WHITETAIL DEER HUNTING
By Darrin Bradley
In the Summer of 2001, I stood beside my truck on an old remote gravel road in Iowa with aerial photographs of ground I had just leased, spread across the hood of my truck. I was studying the maps closely in an effort to identify areas to scout for treestand selection. Faintly in the distance I heard the pulse of a vehicle making its way down the gravel road towards my direction. Within moments an old truck pulled up beside me and stopped. Its driver rolled his passenger window down to ask if I was having trouble, or if I was stranded. I thanked him for his concern, and explained I had just leased some ground for my whitetail outfitting business in the area. I further exlained I was just enjoying the warm summer morning and planning a day of scouting for trophy whitetails after a careful study of the topo maps. The driver introduced himself as Joe. As a whitetail hunt outfitter my truck has an 8 inch lift kit, big tires, fancy wheels, camoclad trim, and a huge deer emblem on each door. It stood out like a “sore thumb” in the remote graveled roads of this small community, and Joe certainly wanted to know what I was up to.
After offering a firm handshake, I explained I had just leased some ground in the area and I was studying some maps. Joe indicated he lived a couple hundred yards up the road and stated, “I kill a monster whitetail buck every year.” Cautious turned to inquisitive as I ask him where he hunted. He stated. “Right across the road from your lease.” To which I replied, “Can you show me the deer you’ve harvested?” Joe took me to his house and began to show me bucks I could only dream of, and began to tell me stories that were simply unbelievable as he began to describe sightings of bucks that if accurately portrayed would place in the upper 5% of the Boone and Crockett Record Books. Not knowing the character I had my doubts but ask him if he would like to do some scouting with me the next day. He accepted and we parted ways for the day so he could go to work.
At this time in my life I had begun to taste the fruits of my labor. I was an established outdoor writer, on 23 hunt pro staffs in the hunt industry, made multiple television appearances to teach strategies of taking trophy whitetails, and owner of the largest whitetail specialty outfitting service in the nation, with over 10 Pope and Young Bucks to my credit. To tell you the truth it was a point in my life I was probably a little too proud of my success. At this time in my hunt career I was in possession of over 40,000 acres of leased land in 4 other states sporting over 1000 treestand setups. Many thousands of acres I had leased in reknown Pike County, Illinois, some of which lies right over the fence or border from where the Drury Brothers own ground themselves in Illinois. In short I had thought I had seen the best ground in the United States of America and that it just didn’t get any better.
The next day Joe, the mysterious Iowa native sat me down over a soda pop and we began a local tour of ground in the area of South Central Iowa. Joe spent the next several days with me and LITERALLY humbled me. Joe began to show me bucks and deersign that I did not knew existed on planet Earth. As I write this narrative I realize how ridiculous it may sound but the truth is Joe showed me 3 bucks in 2 days on the property I leased that I believe would finish in the top 5 whitetail bucks ever harvested in the history of whitetail hunting. The deersign was nothing short of incredible. Deersign encompassing trails, rubs, scrapes, dropping etc, was by far the densest and best I have ever witnessed. To take it a step further, I didn’t know whitetail sign nor sightings of trophy whitetails even existed to this extent anywhere in the world. Keep in mind that I lease thousands of acres across the Midwest in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. I have seen more land tracts than any ten men you may know as whitetail outfitting is what I do full time for a living. Its my business to know ground and read deersign. I was no novice regarding this endeavor, however what I witnessed in Iowa on that day and continue to witness today is nothing short of THE BEST TROPHY WHITETAIL HUNTING IN THE WORLD. Iowa currently lays claim to being the best state in the nation for trophy whitetail deer and is literally rewriting the Boone and Crockett Records Books each and every year for the past several years. Iowa literally humbled me as a human being and a hunter.
During the following narrative we will discuss issues surrounding Iowa Deerhunting relative to the pursuit of trophy whitetail bucks and their behavior of Iowa hunt pressure, season dates, peak hunt times, prime locations in the State, Department of Natural Resources, tag obtainment, terrain descriptions, record book buck entries for the State of Iowa, and hunt outfitters.
HISTORY OF WHITETAIL DEER IN THE STATE OF IOWA
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is cited as follows regarding its history of the whitetail deer in the State and evolution of, “White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were reported to be quite abundant when white settlers arrived in Iowa in the early 1800's. Although the clearing and cultivating of land for agriculture may have initially improved the suitability of the landscape for deer, uncontrolled exploitation for food and hides rapidly reduced deer numbers. By 1880 deer were rarely sighted in much of the state and in 1898 the deer season was legally closed. By this time deer had been virtually eliminated from all parts of the state.
Reestablishment of deer into the state can be traced to escapes and releases from captive herds and translocation and natural immigration from deer herds in surrounding states. A conservative estimate of the population in 1936 placed statewide numbers at between 500 and 700 animals. This small herd grew steadily. By 1950 deer were reported in most counties and the statewide estimate topped 10,000. Concentrations in some areas were beginning to cause problems by damaging agricultural crops. In response to these problems the first modern deer season was held in December of 1953 and 4,000 deer were killed. Currently, the deer herd is estimated to be about 200,000 after the hunting season, and harvests have approached 100,000 in recent years” (Source 1)
IOWA RANKINGS IN THE WHITETAIL RECORD BOOKS
Iowa deerhunting ranks as the #3 state in the nation for number of entries in the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young Record Books behind Illinois, and Wisconsin. I would suggest that although Iowa ranks #3, that is indeed the #1 qualitative state to pursue trophy whitetail deer. Studies show that Iowa awards fewer Non Resident deer tags to hunters than any other state except Kansas. Further Iowa is a shotgun firearm state. Both they factors are of relative importance when stating Iowa is the best trophy whitetail hunting in the United States.
If Iowa awards fewer deertags to Non Resident hunters than any other State except Kansas then you would assume the number of entries or harvest rate would be minimal. Afterall, the fewer tags the state hands out the fewer deer will be harvested, thereby reducing the number of entries the State of Iowa may present to the whitetail record books. Its like playing with a handicap. In Iowa we literally have a state handing out a minimal amount of tags and still laying claim to being the 3rd highest ranked state in the nation for number of entries in the record books. Imagine if they handed out unlimited tags. One could only assume they would be the #1 state in the nation for number of entries in the record books. 4 of the top 10 animals recorded with typical antlers of whitetail deer in the Boone and Crockett Record Books come from Iowa. An incredible amount. Bottomline, Iowa presents more record book deer per square mile than any other state in the nation. It seems each year the American Whitetail Hunter can count on another breathtaking harvest of world class animals like the Lovenstien Buck taken in 2006 scoring in excess of 200 inches.
IOWA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES
Many reasons for the States high quality whitetail production is due to the credit of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, hereafter referred to as Iowa DNR. The Iowa DNR states on their website located at www.iowadnr.com information pertinent to why the whitetail herd is thriving in the State of Iowa. “The white-tail's ability to thrive in Iowa is likely the result of an abundant, reliable food source and a winter climate where snow depths rarely exceed 12" for a prolonged length of time. These factors combine to allow deer to come through the "winter bottleneck" in excellent condition. The excellent nutrition also enables deer to have high reproductive rates. Many deer in Iowa have a single fawn their first year and 2 fawns each subsequent year. Deer in the wild can probably maintain these high reproductive rates until they are 10 years old. Past research in Iowa has found that 8 to 12% of adult does have 3 fawns.
Another reason that deer do so well in Iowa is that they are very mobile. Although many deer stay near the area where they were born, a significant number leave and travel to new areas before establishing a core area. These core areas may change seasonally with deer shifting between wintering areas and breeding areas. These movements allow deer to fill voids left open due to deaths and easily pioneer into new areas when habitat is suitable. High rates of movement occur during 2 periods of the year. The first is in the spring when deer move to their fawning areas. Many of last years fawns are forced to find areas of their own at this time. The second period is in the fall during the breeding season. The breeding season begins in mid-October and runs through mid-January, although the peak of activity occurs during the first 3 weeks of November.
Careful management of deer populations by man has also played a crucial role in allowing deer numbers to return to the levels enjoyed today. Management consists of carefully regulating the harvest since hunting provides the only major source of mortality for deer today. Unchecked, Iowa's deer herd could grow at a rate of 20% to 40% each year. At this rate, deer numbers would double in as few as 3 years. With Iowa's abundant agricultual crops providing food, densities could potentially reach 100 or more deer per square mile before natural regulatory mechanisms would begin to affect deer health and slow the rate of growth. Deer numbers this high would cause economic hardship to Iowa's landowners as well as alter the natural vegetative community. Maintaining a deer population in balance with the wants and needs of the people in the state is a difficult task, but hunting is the only viable management option to achieve this goal.” (Source 2)
No doubt that every Iowa DNR agent I have been exposed to has been kind and helpful, while strictly enforcing the game laws within the State. Officer Kyle Jenson of Wayne County is one of the greatest fellows I would ever care to meet and does his job with a passion while maintaining an air of professional that is unmatched.
WHAT MAKES IOWA THE BEST STATE TO HARVEST A TROPHY WHITETAIL?
One might ask, “What makes Iowa the best state in the nation to harvest a trophy whitetail buck.?” Iowa should be chosen over more reknown locations like Webb County, Texas and Pike County, Illinois due to minimal hunt pressure, as well as the fact deertags are difficult to attain, further poses with the fact the state only allows firearm hunters to use shotgun or muzzleloader during the firearm season which doesn NOT occur during the rut. Literally the herd is able to maintain lifespans that on the average are much longer than commercialized hunting locations. This results in larger racked deer. While these more reknown counties are initially more appealing for choice lets pause to review some facts. Any county that presents hundreds of Hunt Outfitters places massive amounts of pressure on the herd and massive harvest quantities. I recall opening up a Division of my Whitetail Outfitting Service in Iowa 5 years ago. When I arrived I literally had no competition. I don’t even know of another outfitter near me in Iowa. Meanwhile in other more reknown counties leases were much higher with massive amounts of hunt pressure from neighboring outfitters which resulted in less “really big” whitetail bucks due to increased harvest rates based solely upon unlimited numbers of hunters in the woods.
Due to a lack of hunt pressure whitetail deer in Iowa have not evolved intellectually to the level deer in commercialized hunt counties have. The first season I scouted the Iowa deer herd from high atop a white oak I noted that the Iowa deer herd just wandered around like domestic livestock. They didn’t look up into the treetops or check wind currents for scent. The Iowa trophy whitetail buck and rest of the herd simply conducts its daily routines as if they have no predators. This makes the Iowa deer an easier deer to harvest with high success rates for shot obtainment on trophy whitetail deer. I quickly noticed that when I obtained land in Iowa to deerhunt that usually the properties had never been bowhunted at all. Also I quickly noted that the ground I obtained in Iowa had never been hunted correctly. Meaning that nobody had hunted topographical advantages like funnels, spiderwebs, bottlenecks, lowspots, inside “L”s, etc. The Iowa ground still carried that “no boot tracks in the creek” type of environment that Boone and Crockett Deer demand. Remote, in a word. When I began hunting Iowa my hunters began harvesting whitetail bucks that were usually 40 inches of average antler length above those deer my hunters harvested in our other states which include Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. Don’t misunderstand, more reknown counties for outfitting like Webb County, Texas and Buffalo County, Wisconsin, and Pike County, Illinois do present wonderful opportunities to harvest trophy whitetail bucks, however I found right off the bat that Iowa was housing ancient unhunted whitetail bucks that could literally make a man famous if he was to harvest one.
SEASON DATES AND TAGS FOR IOWA WHITETAIL DEERHUNTING
Archery Season in Iowa opens October 1 of each year and normally closes on January 15. Tags are obtained through a very strict lottery process wherein first year applicants almost never get a bowtag. Hunters need to apply for the archery tag in May via telephone. If the hunter is not selected for an archery tag he or she then obtains a preference point. In years following the preference point will serve as preferential treatment to applicants who do have a preference point. Simpy put………..my experience has been with archery tags that the first year the hunter applies he will get denied and awarded a preference point. Then when the applicant applies year 2 with the preference point he or she usually draws, however sometimes it takes 2 preferences points or 2 year of being declined to be awarded the archery non resident tag, however its well worth the wait. With outfitters who conduct in multiple states hunters may apply for an Iowa tag and then if not drawn they may go hunt a different state while waiting to be drawn during year 2. IMB Outfitters would be a perfect example of that. IMB is located in 5 states and can be viewed online at www.imbmonsterbucks.com Hunters born after 1966 must present a hunter safety tag to purchase a permit. Archery season can be a wonderful experience any time of year. Early season hunting needs to take place over foodplots or in white oak groves bearing acorns. My suggestion would be if awarded an Iowa tag to hunt during the peak of the rut as it may be years before you draw another archery tag in Iowa. You want to utilize that tag at the most opportunistic time which of course if the peak of the rut. Good dates begin around Halloween with pea of the rut being around November 15 or sometimes sooner. Late season archery hunting can is awesome as well as deer are literally starving to death and forced to come to foodplots to present shot opportunities to hunters. Also believe it or not Iowa has the strongest 2nd rut I have ever seen in any state. Bucks are chasing does as late as December. You must remember that any doe not bred in mid November comes back into heat 30 days later making mid December archery and muzzleloader hunting a very successful tool for the harvest of a trophy whitetail buck. Late season hunts should be conducted on a solid green food source. Non residents may only harvest one buck during a year by any means, bow, gun, or archery.
Firearms Season normally opens on the first four days of December and is referred to as the “First Gun Season” The “Second Gun Season” occurs 5 days later running normally 12-9 to 12-12. The State of Iowa mandates hunters to use shotguns or muzzleloaders only. No rifles are allowed for firearm hunting. A lenient lottery begins in May via telephone. Hunters call and apply for guntags with high rate of success regarding tag obtainment. Hunters born after 1966 must present a hunter safety tag to purchase a permit. Only one buck can be harvested per hunter if you are a non resident. Oddly enough even landowners who reside out of state may only take one buck and have no advantage to drawing a tag over the average client who hunts with an outfitter or on public ground. This minimizes hunt real estate value, as land normally sells for an estimated $2000 per acre.
Late Muzzleloader tags are relatively easy to obtain through lottery process with high success rates as a bonus. Season dates on Late Muzzleloader Hunting in Iowa normally run from 12-17 to 1-10.
KEY LOCATIONS IN THE STATE OF IOWA FOR TROPHY WHITETAIL DEER
I learned long ago that its not enough just to go hunt a great whitetail state like Missouri, or Illinois, or Iowa. One must locate county specific areas or zones wherein quality whitetail bucks are being harvested. One way to perform this function is to simply purchase a copy of the latest Pope and Young Record Book. In the book each state displays a color coordinated map with the darkest counties in the state being the ones that have “coughed up” the most number of entries in the record books. One must be careful when using these maps as counties which border major metropolitan areas are always dark colored or represented as high quality simply because they are receiving the most pressure due to higher populations of hunters.
Early in the history of Iowa deerhunting the Northeastern part of the state was responsible for the highest quantity of entries in the record books, however things have changed over the past 10 years. Currently Iowa is re writing the whitetail records books in the South Central and South Eastern portions of the State. The State of Iowa Deerhunting is divided up into zones. The ONLY two zones one should pursue trophy whitetail deer in are Zone 5 and Zone 6 when considering a trip to this state. Counties included in these zones include Wayne, Appanoose, Van Buren, Lee, Lucas Monroe, Wapello and Warren. This is the current hotspot of Iowa. As a general rule of thumb hunting areas within an hour any direction of Centerville, Iowa are placed to concentrate on.
IOWA WHITETAIL HUNT OUTFITTERS
Not many outfitters exist in the State of Iowa and the entities that do exist are normally “run of the mill” family owned business’s who often mean well but don’t really understand how a professional outfitting service needs to be run or just how to get on monster trophy whitetail bucks in Iowa. My first choice for an Iowa whitetail hunt outfitter would be IMB Outfitters. My second choice is an entity owned by a man named Jud Cooney. These two outfitters may be the only professionally run operations in the State. IMB Outfitters is located in Zone 5, which is the area that is responsible for the State’s best deerhunting. Jud Cooney ( a separate entity from IMB Outfitters) is not in Zone 5 nor 6. IMB Outfitters has won several outdoor awards and offers both fully and semi guided archery and gun hunts from the States best whitetail area and habitat. You may view IMB on the internet at www.imbmonsterbucks.com or phone toll free at 866-855-7063. You will want to make sure and book with a credible outfitter when in pursuit of Iowa trophy whitetail deer. Don’t waste an Iowa tag on a low class Iowa hunt outfitter. Go with the best or you won’t experience what Iowa has to offer. This is not a state to “skimp” when attending for trophy whitetail deer.
TERRAIN OF IOWA DEERHUNTING
Iowa is unlike most Midwestern state as it has only about 10% timber or hardwoods cover. Many draws and ditches exist although patchs of white oak timber do exist. Iowa DNR describes their terrain as follows: “Although deer are normally associated with forested areas, deer will utilize many different types of habitat as long as the area provides adequate cover. Examples of these types of areas include brushy draws and fencelines, marshes, and grassy areas like those provided by the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Standing corn also provides ideal habitat for part of the year since it provides food, cover and easy travel lanes. Deer utilize almost all plants for food at one time or another during the year. Deer feeding habits can best be described as being erratically selective as deer will sample many plants while feeding but often utilize a single source of food for the majority of their diet.
Simply put, Iowa has less timber than states like Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin. This isn’t a bad thing for the trophy whitetail hunter. As you might assume if deer have less hardwood timber for cover then the herd has a smaller amount of spaces to hide. As a result success rates soar in Iowa as pretty much all trophy whitetail hunters need to do is locate small woodlots of timber or brushy ditches and be patient for the buck of a lifetime.
Iowa is simply “hands down” the best state in the nation for the harvest of a true trophy whitetail buck, however be sure and hunt in the right place with the right outfitter. When approached properly an Iowa deerhunt will prove to be the best experience of ones hunt career and a truly humbling experience. You simply couldn’t imagine its quality.
Source 1. Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Source 2. Iowa Department of Natural Resources